Posted August 20th 2010 at 2:24 pm by
in Coal Industry: Kentucky to Colombia, Kentucky

From One Coal Mining Town to Another: a Kentuckian Visits Colombia

Above, post author Randy Wilson brings the musical traditions of Kentucky to a coal-mining village in Colombia. Later, he was able to watch Colombians perform a dance native to their region.

We got up at 5:30 a.m. and were on the bus by 6:00 – another day on the road in the Guajira region of northern Colombia.  I don’t think I saw more than twelve tourists during the whole seven days we were in that region, which is perfect for mining coal; nobody comes up there, so nobody sees the toll coal mining takes on a region.  My colleagues and I from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC) were there as a part of a Witness for Peace delegation observing what the mines were doing to the region.  Everywhere we went people said, “They promised prosperity and jobs,”and then they gave us a long list of economic, environmental, and health problems they had inherited from the coal companies.

This day we had to leave the tour bus and take a four-wheel van back into those villages directly affected by a coal pit the size of Long Island!  It was thirty five miles long and five miles wide.  We pitched to and fro through rutted roads, crossed a swelling river once, and then got caught in the rising river a second time.  Locals rustled up a long rope and a bus pulled us out to safety.  At one time all these villages were joined by a convenient trade route.  They traded tobacco, garden vegetables, goat and cattle.  They had no clear boundaries.  Their cattle ranged far and wide.  Some indigenous tribes lived in the region before the European invasion in 1499.   But then there was a different kind of invasion led by mining multinationals, supported by the United States and Colombian governments, and strong-armed by military and paramilitary thugs, displacing folks right and left as the coal companies cleared their path.

coal mineA coal mine in Colombia.

Some villagers were united.  Some were not.  The company picked off some, divided others.  All were in negotiations for removal.  One such village was Tomaquito, home of the indigenous Wyhuu people.  Once lord of thousands of hectares, they were reduced to ten and bound within the confines of their village, dependent on food sources from a town some twenty-five miles of treacherous road away.   They lived under a cool canopy of trees in mud huts with palm thatched roofs.  They performed a dance for us where the women, covered from head to ankle in flaming red capes, circled the open ground to the sound of a drum.  They told us of their life there: “Once we fished, we hunted, we grew crops, we tended goats and cattle.  We had no boundaries.  We traded with nearby villages.   There was no need for electricity.   When the sun sets and night falls it is dark, but we know where we are.  We are not lost.  Once we lived in peace.”

colombiaWomen native to the coal-mining region of Colomia performed a traditional dance for their visitors from Kentucky.

Every year 132 million tons of Colombian coal goes to fire coal fired plants in places like Mobile, Alabama; Tampa, Florida; and Salem, Massachusetts.  These plants put us all at risk.  The very people who know how to live sustainably, who figured this out long, long ago, are being displaced by a society whose principles and policy don’t have a clue.

From July 19th to 26th Randy, a member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, was part of this Witness For Peace delegation to Colombia. KFTC is member-driven organization that helps ordinary citizens across the state of Kentucky organize to improve their communities and build a better state. Randy is from Clay County, Kentucky.

2 responses to “From One Coal Mining Town to Another: a Kentuckian Visits Colombia”

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    Randy, I really appreciate your post. I don’t think most people think a thing of where their electricity comes from and what price a community may have paid for it.

    I’ve done my reading on the economics of natural-resource wealth, and I know that mines, for example, impact local economies in similar ways across various countries and regions.

    What I don’t know is whether mining communities experience similar impacts on culture across regions. Your post talks about a cultural exchange (music, dance). I am wondering: Did you observe any cultural similarities between eastern Kentucky and the region of Colombia you visited? How does mining impact culture? Does it?

  2. Randy Wilson says:


    Sure there are similarities between Colombian indigenous cultures and here. The leader at Tomoquito spoke of his mother who knew the healing herbs of the region. My grandmother was a “granny woman”. She knew the herbs in the woods as did our Cherokee ancestors before her. The Tomoquito people were independant and free, resourceful, frugal. The many tales of my ancestors speak of the same people. I talk with many miners and one of the fellows got disabled on a strip job when his ‘dozer flipped over a high wall. He had to fight like hell to get a meager disability check. He said,”We were once independent people. We didn’t have to ask for help from anybody. Now, we’ve been made completely dependent. They have completely destroyed the rights of a working man.”

    In a way we all join him in this dependence and we know the earth becomes disabled through the process. That’s why I’ve been wondering about Project 1366 up there at MIT. They are making a solar panel that produces energy cheaper than coal. It is a long process, but the price of alternatives keeps going down. I’d like to come up there sometime and see what they are doing.